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State officials fire commissioner for the deaf who had ties to controversial fraternity

The Baker administration fired its chief advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing, months after it said it was investigating allegations he admitted to wearing robes resembling Ku Klux Klan garb and made apparent Nazi salutes while in a college fraternity three decades ago.

Steven A. Florio was issued a letter of termination, effective Monday, Oct. 19, state officials told the Globe. Florio, who had led the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing since February 2019, had been on paid administrative leave since July.

Florio told members of the agency’s staff in meetings and in an e-mail in late June that he was a member of Kappa Gamma Fraternity at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C., for the deaf and hard of hearing. Florio attended the school between 1987 and 1992, according to his LinkedIn page.

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The university had suspended the fraternity in June after members were identified wearing blue robes with pointed hoods that resembled Ku Klux Klan garb. The school’s president called the fraternity the “face of systemic racism in our community.”

In a meeting with commission staff, Florio “admitted to dressing as a Nazi and saluting while wearing garb resembling the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan” while he was a member of the fraternity, according to a letter officials from SEIU Local 509, which represents employees at the commission, sent to Governor Charlie Baker.

One staff member said it appeared Florio was reading from a script as he disclosed his past membership with the fraternity to employees, saying it “doesn’t reflect his character," the Globe has reported. Florio later e-mailed the staff, saying he disavows his “past affiliation” with the fraternity and that he remains “totally committed to working with you to carry out our mission.”

The Baker administration announced days later that Florio had been placed on paid administrative leave on July 9, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

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“Obviously, there’s no tolerance for intolerance," Baker said in July, saying it was “important that this be investigated.”

“It was 30 years ago. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to follow up,” he said.

Brooke Karanovich — a spokeswoman for the state’s executive office of health and human services, which oversees the commission — did not address questions of what the probe found, nor did her office immediately provide a copy of the letter of termination officials sent to Florio.

An e-mail to Florio’s state account was not immediately returned Saturday, and efforts to reach him at a home number listed under his name were not successful.

Patricia Ford, the agency’s deputy commissioner, will continue to serve as the agency’s acting leader until a new commissioner is appointed, state officials said.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, sent an e-mail to the commission’s staff late Friday afternoon, announcing her office was “embarking on a search” for a new commissioner. The message, which was obtained by the Globe, did not specifically address Florio.

“It is essential that the next Commissioner be fully inclusive of the breadth and depth of the community of individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing and supports the diversity and work of our staff,” Sudders wrote.

Florio served for 16 years as the director for the Rhode Island Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing before being hired to lead the Massachusetts agency.

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Peter MacKinnon, the president of SEIU 509, which represents about three dozen members of the agency’s staff, had pressed the Baker administration to address a “culture of fear and uncertainty” at the commission, where he said employees had lost confidence in Florio.

“The voices of our members were heard," MacKinnon said in a statement Saturday. “Intolerance is not always explicit, but often expressed in the company we keep and the way we carry ourselves throughout the world. Those in positions of power should be held to the highest of standards. We look forward to partnering with the Baker administration on working with a new commissioner going forward.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.